Grey Hypocolius Kutch

Kutch Diaries – Breakfast with the Grey Hypocolius

In the village of Fulai that morning, I couldn’t help but notice the celestial portents. The super blue blood moon was sighted a day earlier, the earth’s north had tilted towards the sun a fortnight ago, the days had been steadily growing longer since the past month. They reiterated to me that the universe was not meant to be defined by boundaries, or perhaps the universe was not meant to be defined.

The full moon was now setting. It looked like any normal full moon, but the previous day it didn’t. My hopes of getting fantastic photos of the eclipse were dashed due to the haze, and the irony that I had an unrestricted view of the moon when I was on a different quest hit home.

The setting super blue blood moon

A few hours earlier we had started from Centre for Desert and Ocean (CEDO) in Moti Virani, with Jugal Tiwari and Chetan, towards the farms in Fulai lined with Salvadora (Salvadora persica). Our quest was for a special winter visitor. Kutch is known to be the western extent of the migration map of the Grey Hypocolius (Hypocolius ampelinus) a monotypic species that arrives in winter from West Asia. Jugal has studied these birds in Kutch since the 1990s and he knows that it thrives on the berries produced by these bushes, which incidentally thrive in saline soil. Salt and Kutch match like parathas and pickle.

With a cup of tea and biscuits as pre-dawn fodder, we bundled into the SUV. The milky moonlight that was splashed over the village disappeared with the harsh halogen beams of the headlamps and the sound of the SUV’s engine cranking. While the headlights did hide one magnificence of nature, in a quarter of an hour they revealed another. I swung from side to side in the SUV as we advanced along the winding and undulating road from Moti Virani to Fulai.

A nightjar brazenly leapt up, just missing the windshield of the SUV. It reminded me of the road near BR Hills where nightjars became sitting ducks for passing vehicles to run over. This nightjar was fortunate and veered away before it could strike the glass. The ride was otherwise uneventful. When we arrived at Fulai we were welcomed by the sight of confounding silhouettes cast by the setting moon, the sound of barking village dogs, and the scents of cattle and cattle-feed.

We got off at the village and Jugal led us on foot through the farms. Sunrise was important for sighting the Grey Hypocolius. But a heavy mist encircled us and we were barely able to see each other a few feet apart. As I recollect these events in April 2020 I can’t help but mention that it was social cohesion and not social distancing that kept us on track that day.

Jugal led us to the edge of the farm and told us we should wait. The farm wasn’t spectacular. I can’t recollect what they were growing since it was plain and dry, with bushes and scrub. There was a patch lined with Salvadora, where the Grey Hypocolius were to arrive to feed.

By now the mist had started to lift, visibility had improved though not completely. The newfound visibility revealed a white-washed sky. I tried to suppress the agony by observing a flock of about two dozen White-eared Bulbuls on a bush. A raptor flew overhead. Long tail and black primaries — a harrier. What happened next was almost mystical. The harrier seemed to have peeled away with it a layer of cloud. The first signs of yellow appeared in the sky over the horizon, like an oil-wick lamp shining behind parchment.

Chirps and tweets picked up. Common Tailorbirds, a female Baya Weaver, and Green Bee-eaters made an appearance. I didn’t realise that I had drifted from our encampment until Jugal called in a hushed voice and pointed at the ground near the bush that had earlier hosted the White-eared Bulbuls. I didn’t know what to look for, until I saw a portion of the brown earth move. Robin perhaps, I thought, breaking the most important rule of bird identification. The bird turned around and I could see its blue and rufous throat and the white supercilium. I had by now circuited the bush and was standing next to Jugal when he pronounced Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica). With joy unbound I lost track of the next few minutes as I followed the edgy brown bird, trying to get a sharp photograph.

A male Bluethroat gave us respite from the agonizing wait

Frustrated with the backlight I was oblivious to the fact that the sun had made an appearance almost an hour after we set foot in Fulai. In its golden glow the plain and unappealing foliage of the farm looked cheerful.

A female Bluethroat landed next to the bush near the foraging male. I felt satiated. The Hypocolius was far from my thoughts. I looked up and drew a deep breath. The sky was turning white again and a patch of cloud headed to obscure the sun. I capped my lens. Just then, the sky resounded with the most unpleasant din since that day at Khichan where I watched thousands of Demoiselle Cranes congregate.

Overhead, I saw waves of Common Crane flocks, flying south. This cacophony could chase away demons, I conjectured. Demon or no demon, the noise was enough to chase away the clouds. A flock of Marshall’s Ioras and White-eared Bulbuls flew into the Salvadora bush and feasted on the berries.

“Breakfast is served,” the Marshall’s Iora appears to announce

While we were busy observing the energetic Ioras and Bulbuls, a female Grey Hypocolius reared its head from the nearby salvadora bush and slipped back in. Hypocolius are generally shy birds that are seldom found on an open perch. Given the density of the salvodora bush, getting a clear shot is wearying.

The male Grey Hypocolius spent more time on the outer flanks of the salvodora, nipping at the berries in an unhurried way. The bird’s evident black mask reminded me of the character Zorro. As I peered through the binoculars, I couldn’t help marvel at the risks the bird took in flying from the Middle East all the way to the western edge of India.

The Grey Hypocolius is the visitor from the West that rode the Zephyr

Since the 1990s, the bird has been recorded as a regular winter visitor to Kutch. But for how long has the bird been coming here, I pondered? Are we looking at the pattern that existed since when the Turks dominated the Middle East, or were we looking at the visitor from the times of the Mongols? Was this annual visitor witness to the advent of Islam in the Middle East, or would the bird stand testament to the heroics of Gilgamesh of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia?

At a time when humans are afraid to cross the land borders they have defined, the Grey Hypocolius would have flown in this year too. From the region between the two rivers, across Persia, over the lands of the Balochs to the vast arid tracts transited by the Maldharis. No geopolitics, no passport control, along the rotation of the earth on the way in and against the rotation of the earth on the way out.

The Grey Hypocolius experience was the starter to our Kutchi repast and it whetted our appetite for more. We headed back from Fulai to Moti Virani with Banni grasslands on our minds.

Text and Photographs: Andy

Andy

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